Three Years After Gulf Spill, Continuing Damage to Wildlife, Opportunities for Wetlands Restoration
As we mark the 3rd anniversary of the massive and massively horrific BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a new report describes ongoing wetlands and wildlife impacts that may take many years to resolve. However, there are also new and unique opportunities for wetlands restoration along the Gulf coast.
Starting exactly three years ago, some 4.1 billion barrels of oil was spilled into the Gulf, soiling some 1100 miles of coastline. Eleven workers were killed and dozens more injured. The environmental impacts remain.
- Dolphin deaths have remained above average in the area affected by oil every month since just before the spill began. Infant dolphins were found dead at six times average rates in January and February of 2013. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the dolphin die-off “unprecedented”—a year ago. While NOAA is keeping many elements of its dolphin research confidential pending the conclusion of the ongoing trial, the agency has ruled out the most common causes of previous dolphin die-offs.
- More than 1,700 sea turtles were found stranded between May 2010 and November 2012—the last date for which information is available. For comparison, on average about 240 sea turtles are stranded annually.
- A coral colony seven miles from the wellhead was badly damaged by oil. A recent laboratory study found that the mixture of oil and dispersant affected the ability of some coral species to build new parts of a reef.
- Scientists found that the oil disaster affected the cellular function of the killifish, a common baitfish at the base of the food web. A recent laboratory study found that oil exposure can also harm the development of larger fish such as mahi mahi.
In theory, money from the responsible parties will finance on-the-ground restoration projects. Indeed, many hope the funds will provide an opportunity to not only clean up the mess, but to improve coastal resilience. Unfortunately, though, only a trickle of funding has arrived.
As a result of the spill, some $4 billion in criminal penalties from BP and another $400 million from Transocean are to be deposited in the treasury. Transocean settled their civil liability for $1 billion. More billions are likely to come from an ongoing trial with BP to determine the extent of Clean Water Act damages. Other compensation from Oil Pollution Act liability and a Natural Resource Damages Assessment could also be forthcoming.
Indeed, the influx of funding has the potential to enable restoration projects along the Gulf Coast that have the potential to make the coastline more resilient. But three years later, much of the work hasn’t even begun.
The longer the wait, the more difficult the restoration job becomes. Many wetlands that were soiled by the BP spill were later destroyed entirely by Hurricane Isaac. Meanwhile, sea level rise and land subsidence is further erasing marshland from the maps. Wetlands are crucial to coastline habitat and fisheries, and wetlands also buffer against storms.
Restoration projects funded by oil spill funds have the potential to rebuild some resilience. That is, if the funds aren’t squandered. Advocates are calling for the bulk of the funding from the responsible parties be dedicated to sensible ecological restoration. And advocates are hoping that the promised funding actually arrives. Soon.